Fifteen prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were sent to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the single largest release of detainees during U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, the Pentagon announced Monday, as closure plans for Guantanamo still face opposition largely from Republican lawmakers.
The transfer of 12 Yemeni nationals and three Afghans to the UAE comes amid a renewed push to whittle down the number of detainees held at the U.S. prison in Cuba that Obama has aimed to close since he took office.
The Pentagon says 61 detainees now remain at Guantanamo, which was opened in January 2002 to hold foreign fighters suspected of links to the Taliban or al-Qaida. During President George W. Bush's administration, 532 prisoners were released from Guantanamo, often in large groups to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
The latest batch of released prisoners had been held without charges at Guantanamo, some for over 14 years, drawing international condemnation. They were cleared for release by the Periodic Review Board, comprised of representatives from six U.S. government agencies.
The UAE successfully resettled five detainees transferred there last year, according to the Pentagon. In July 2008, the seven-emirate nation also repatriated UAE citizen and Guantanamo prisoner Abdulah Alhamiri at the same time that Afghanistan and Qatar each accepted one prisoner a piece. The current status of the six prisoners in the UAE is not publicly known.
Lee Wolosky, the U.S. State Department's special envoy for Guantanamo's closure, said the U.S. was grateful to the UAE for accepting the latest group of 15 men and helping pave the way for the detention center's closure.
"The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists," Wolosky said.
Obama has been seeking to close the detention center amid opposition from Congress, which has prohibited transferring detainees to the U.S. for any reason. The administration has been working with other countries to resettle detainees who have been cleared for transfer.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the Obama administration for recent releases, portraying the freed detainees as "hardened terrorists."
According to Amnesty International, one of the Afghans released to the UAE alleged that he was "tortured and subjected to other cruel treatment" while in U.S. military custody. The man, identified only as Obaidullah, was captured by U.S. special forces in July 2002 and allegedly admitted to acquiring and planting anti-tank mines to target U.S. and other coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.
In clearing him for transfer, the review board said he has not expressed any anti-U.S. sentiment or intent to re-engage in militant activities. However, a Pentagon profile from last year also said he provided little information and they had little "insight into his current mindset."
Last week, a top Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, pushed her case Wednesday for keeping the Guantanamo facility open, releasing an unclassified report on 107 current and former detainees to show why closing the military prison is a security risk. In a speech Monday on defeating DAESH, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump also vowed to keep open the controversial prison.
In February, Obama presented Congress with a new closure plan for Guantanamo, which he says serves only to stoke anti-U.S. resentment and fuel extremist recruitment. But the plan is likely doomed as Ayotte and other Republicans continue to oppose the detention facility's shuttering, especially because Obama wants to transfer the highest-risk detainees to a site in the United States.